The alcohol conundrum: to ask or not ask

In the aftermath of World Mental Health Day and, a little longer ago, the RUOK campaign I have had a fairly consistent thought flowing through my brain: what other questions do I wish people had asked me sooner?

There is one such question in my own life that sticks out like a sore thumb: “do you have a problem with alcohol?”  As those of you are close to me (and I admit some of you who are not) will know the answer to that question is a resounding “YES”.  With that in mind I have been considering whether the focus that is now being put on mental health with campaigns like RUOK? day needs to be broadened to consider other societal problems and also whether dealing with issues with alcohol in a similar vein is one step to far for us as a society at present.

Now before you, as readers, start rolling your eyes and wondering “does this bloke ever get off the pulpit?” please do me the indulgence of reading on just a little longer before you click away from this blog.  I am not writing this blog to ask you to stop drinking or to make myself out to be martyr or with some new found evangelical fervour.  I write as someone who knows from first hand experience how difficult it is in our society to admit you have a problem and to deal with it and I would like to start a conversation with you, as a reader, about what we can do to help our loved ones, friends and colleagues with making such an admission.

Before we get back to considering the conundrum expressed in the title to this blog, it is important to understand what I mean by the phrase “having a problem with alcohol”.  I can only express what I know from personal experience and, whilst I am not proud of any of what follows and this pains me to write, I don’t think I can ask you to be honest with yourselves if I am not honest with you.  So here is my experience and problem with alcohol:

  • When I drank there was never enough alcohol in a bar to sate me: I would drink everything.
  • When I drank, if I stopped at 3 beers I would be ok: if I had a 4th drink again there was never enough alcohol to sate me.
  • When I drank, I drank quickly and often alone: even when I was with other people I would find myself buying rounds for only me because my drinking buddies were too slow.
  • When I drank, I paid for everyone.
  • When I drank, the next day I remembered nothing.
  • When I drank, I was doing it to numb the self doubt that crippled me and to have one moment of paused before the black dog started barking again.

Now whether the foregoing conduct make me an alcoholic I don’t know.  People who are helping with the journey I am on are divided and I am, in all honestly, not bothered whether that label fits or it does not.  What is clear is that I had a problem; and more to the point I had a problem that was costing me money, friends and reputation.

The problem with the “alcohol problem” seems to me in part that some of the conduct that befell me on occasion is conduct that many consider to be normal.  Indeed, if one were to look around any bar on a Friday night they would see numerous people in the various states I outlined above.  The fact is that we, as a society, are much more accepting of behaviour like the foregoing than we are of people who admit they have a problem and stop.  I know from experience that the fact that I could imbibe at a rapid and exhaustive rate and bought drinks for everyone was conduct that was lionised rather than shamed.  The badge of “good drinker” is one met with acclamation rather than negativity.

Therein lies the conundrum that rests at the beginning of this blog: in a society where being a “good drinker” is a badge of honour and where not drinking is met with, and I quote from a party I was at Friday night “would you like another glass of milk Nancy” is it just as courageous to ask a loved one, friend or colleague if they have a problem as it is for that person to admit to it?

Much like the RUOK? day message it strikes me that being prepared to ask a loved one, friend or colleague whether they have a problem with alcohol comes with it the responsibility of continuing to ask in the face of being rebuffed.  As I alluded to on twitter (@shumpty77) during the RUOK? program it is not enough to just ask once.  Much like with my depression and anxiety, I have no doubt that if I had have been asked the question about alcohol I would have declined to answer and probably would have declined to answer quite angrily.  Such a response and the ability to of those suffer to mask their pain or conduct means that the person making the enquiry needs to keep asking until they are satisfied that the response received is not simply a mask to put them off from the real underlying issue.

To me: there is no real conundrum as I noted at the start of this blog. My personal view is that we all owe it to each other to look after each other that means asking the question.  Unfortunately, whilst the quantum one imbibes is met with a badge of honour, I am not sure that society thinks the same thing. I, for one, hope that attitude changes sooner rather than later.

Postscript: I should point out here that I make no criticism of my family, friends and colleagues who tried to assist me during the darkest periods of my life.  The love and support I have received has nothing short of brilliant.  In living the way I was living for a long time I became an expert in hiding from everyone what I was going through and even when they did try to help me I was dismissive at best and abusive at worst.  

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